Yes, They All Ate Vegetables
So, this might feel repetitive. I got huffy, I believe in my Vitamin C post, about people claiming upper-crust Medieval folks only ate meat.
I was annoyed by the claim because it was so startlingly wrong, and I knew it. I only had the recipes from ‘A Boke of Gode Cookery’ to prove it though.
But then I found ‘Feasting with the Franks’ on Smashwords and I was off to the races; early medieval vegetable races.
The Historical Record
The Romans accused the Germans of subsisting entirely on milk and beef, but they were mostly just exaggerating. We know because there are people who observed their eating habits a mere hundred or so years later and recorded their meals.
We are lucky to have a fellow named Anthimus to have recorded the stuff French folks ate at Charlemagne’s table. (Don’t know if his fellow diners felt lucky though. He’s a bit judgey and wrote your basic ‘eat for your health’ screed to a king.)
We also have an instruction book to Charlemagne’s estates on what they should have on hand, called De Villis.
Then there is a fellow named Fortunatus also wrote a great deal about the food he ate at Queen Radegund’s table, and, frankly, he’s a man after my own heart. He told his queen that the broad bean ‘makes food glide rapidly through the numerous detours they must travel in our entrails — not without a certain noise alerting us to the fact…” Tee-hee, fart joke.
We even have Nostradamus’s cookbook with recipes for cherry jam and armored turnips, which Tasting History said was delicious.
So, what did these gentlemen and the instruction manual say?
They say monks boiled beans in three baths for their dinners. They say kitchen gardens in nice homes grew leeks, porricini, garlic, shallots, and onions. That feasters loved to round things off with pears and apples.
We also have garden layouts and poems about gardening, which list such goodies as parsnips, turnips, hartwort, fenugreek, lettuce, radish, and arugula. (They were hoity-toity poems.)
They list cabbage, cilantro, endives, and a ton of other vegetables. They don’t mention spinach, but that arrived in Spain in the 10th or 11th century.
The Archeological Records
Obviously, the cabbages and the fennel have rotted into the ground (or in Charlemagne’s vassals) at this point, but traces of beet, mustard, sorrel, asparagus, and other vegetables have been found where it was clear that people were eating the stuff. There are also depictions of vegetables and fruit on various mosaics and pictures.
Leeks and Germans
In a real middle finger to the Romans, the Germans had a favorite vegetable.
In the Icelandic Edda, the leek is constantly invoked as a symbol of growth and land. Anthimus recommends a stew of leeks with celery, pennyroyal, or fennel. (He, however, claims that mushrooms are indigestible, which means he’s nuts and should be ignored. It also means that folks were swallowing down mushrooms at a regular clip.)
Fruits, Nuts, and My Other Peeps
Peaches, plums, apples, pears, figs, and grapes were all well represented in your medieval person’s diet according to the archeological record and our observers. Anthimus talks of quince and mulberry, and Salic Law specifically outlaws stealing people’s apple and pear trees, and then adds ‘or other fruit trees.’ Why grow it or steal it if you’re not going to eat it?
If anything, they had a wide variety of apples that we wouldn’t recognize today, some which traveled well and some which did not. Inventories for estates listed all sorts of fruits and nuts, especially walnuts, chestnuts, pine nuts, and almonds.
My Gripe: The Conclusion
Now, after I have listed all these primary sources showing folks eating vegetables circa 550 CE, you might be asking, “So what?”
I will tell you what is so.
This comment about rich people of the Middle Ages only eating meat is always used to make a point of some sort, generally about our own eating habits, and it is always misplaced, ignorant, and shortsighted. Farming is hard, food is tricky, and you don’t get to gloss over the real struggles people face when trying to acquire food by lying about history.
‘Feasting With The Franks’ by Jim Chevallier
‘A Boke of Gode Cookery’ Aptel Suppe (godecookery.com)
‘Tasting History: Nostradamus’s Turnips’ youtube channel